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European Commission


Brussels, 18 June 2013

Launch of report on improving the quality of teaching and learning in Europe's higher education institutions

Remarks by Androulla Vassiliou, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, and Mary McAleese, chair, High-Level Group on the Modernisation of Higher Education at launch press conference (see IP/13/554)

Commissioner Vassiliou:

Today, the High-Level Group on Higher Education which I convened last September is presenting its first report on an important issue for the modernisation of our higher education systems in Europe: improving the quality of teaching and learning in Europe's higher education institutions.

I am delighted to share the podium today with Mary McAleese, the former President of Ireland and chair of the High-Level Group, who will outline the group's main recommendations in a moment.

I would like to congratulate Mary and the members of the group for delivering ideas which are timely, practical and do not necessarily require large amounts of additional expenditure.

My goal in setting up the group was to encourage new thinking and ideas.

The Commission's agenda for the modernisation of higher education aims to increase both the quality and relevance of our higher education and training systems to ensure that our young people are equipped with the right blend of skills for their future personal and professional development.

The group has consulted widely with stakeholders as part of its work. It found that many higher education institutions do not place enough emphasis on teaching in comparison to research, even though both are core missions of higher education. This needs rebalancing. The role of teaching in defining academic merit needs a stronger emphasis and recognition, especially in career terms.

Ultimately, we should not forget that this is about the students - how to offer them the best possible learning environment and education. Pedagogical training, support and continuous up skilling of our higher education teaching staff is still the exception in Europe. We cannot afford this any longer. I am grateful to the group for making this point very clear.

The High-Level Group's recommendations are directed at universities, Member States and the European Commission. Their ideas can be implemented everywhere, drawing on some of the best examples from around Europe. They underline the importance of well-designed, well-delivered study programmes – and that assessment and evaluation is not just for students, but also for teachers. I especially support the recommendation that all teaching staff in our universities and colleges should undergo certified teacher training by 2020. I believe this simple message could bring about a quality revolution in higher education.

The future Erasmus for All programme will be a solid basis at European level on which we can support the implementation of the Group's recommendations.

This report is a call to action to policy-makers and the leaders of higher education institutions. I intend to initiate a political debate on this issue in all relevant fora in the coming months.

Finally, let me remind you that today's report is the first part of the high level group's mission; they will continue their work now by examining another crucial aspect of higher education – learning and teaching in the digital age. A report on this topic will be published in June next year.

This new report will be set in the framework of a major initiative I will take forward, together with my colleague Neelie Kroes, to support the modernisation of all sectors of education concerning the wider – and better – use of new technologies.

I fear that the potential impact of new technologies on education has not yet been fully appreciated in Europe. I expect to set out our framework in the autumn and to examine how to stimulate innovative ways of teaching, new assessment methods, and a better understanding of learners' needs. I am grateful to Mary and her colleagues for agreeing to examine the implications of these new developments for our higher education systems. I look forward to their next report on these questions.

Mary McAleese:

When Androulla Vassiliou asked me to chair the High-Level Group on the Modernisation of Higher Education, I accepted without a second's hesitation. I believe I speak for all the members of the group. In today's times of crisis with untenable levels of youth unemployment, Europe needs to build on its strengths and to openly examine its weaknesses. Our shared future in Europe depends on our collective work and efforts to improve the quality of our education systems. Quality higher education is a key component of that and that is where we have directed our attention in this report.

Europe has a very diverse higher education landscape, very diverse institutions, with different missions and circumstances. Yet all higher education institutions, whatever their differences share a common crucial task and responsibility: that is to teach our students to the best level possible.

I fully share the Commissioner's view that the balance between research and teaching has been regrettably and unneccesarily thrown out of kilter with the result that teaching and learning have been overshadowed and even overlooked. It is time to rebalance this, so that great teaching becomes the norm in all our institutions.

The High-Level Group is aware of the wide range of excellent examples across Europe where governments and institutions take teaching and learning seriously and incentivise its continuous improvement. Unfortunately though, this is the exception rather than the rule across Europe.

The Group tried to identify what works best where, under which circumstances and contexts. Improving the quality in teaching and learning is not magic nor does it need huge amounts of funding. What it needs is a change of culture, so that good teachers are given the same levels of recognition and reward as excellent researchers.

This is why we are recommending a professionalization of teacher training in higher education. Teaching performance should be taken into account and assessed at entrance, in the progression and promotion of staff working in our universities and colleges. Certified pedagogical training for all teaching staff should be introduced by 2020.

In the last year we looked at a range of exemplars of good practice. One characteristic most of them had was that institutional strategies and actual initial and continuous teacher training programmes were embedded in an incentivised national policy framework, where strategies and implementation of quality teaching and learning go hand-in-hand at institutional and departmental level.

Our recommendation is that public authorities should develop such strategic frameworks corresponding to institutional strategies to improve the quality of teaching and learning, by devoting the necessary level of human and financial resources to it.

Successful quality enhancement of teaching and learning has several core ingredients: a strong rooting in the institution and its mission, a continuous dialogue of the institutional leadership with the heads and teaching teams of departments, a continuous evaluation and improvement cycle. Among the instruments used by institutions are: data collection, teaching portfolios, job shadowing, learning outcomes assessment, student, staff and alumni feed-back, tracking of students, peer-to-peer arrangements, and internal and external quality assurance procedures that take the quality of teaching and learning into account.

These instruments and more are the ingredients for the recommendations we developed in our report. All these recommendations are reality checked, based on existing good practices in Europe, can easily be taken up and adapted by higher education institutions and governments by the list of examples we are giving.

Let me point to one oddity: student support, mentoring and guidance are often discussed and taken for granted or are at least expected from our higher education institutions. This, unfortunately, does not hold true for pedagogical support, training, mentoring and guidance for our teaching staff. This has to change. So we recommend that all higher education institutions should develop and implement a strategy for the support and on-going improvement of quality in teaching and learning. Again, the examples given in the report show how this can be done.

Since the Commissioner asked us to work on this report, we also have defined some work for the European Commission. We ask the European Commission to use their instruments, like the education programme and structural funds, to help making quality teaching and learning a reality in all Europe.

We had some debate inside the group on how bold versus how realistic we should be with our recommendations. And I believe, we found a good bold realism.

Our report appeals to the responsibility of all actors in higher education, to institutions' and teaching staff's responsibility towards their students, to institutions' and governments' responsibility towards the teaching staff to fully develop their potential, and to the responsibility of institutions and staff to fully involve students into the teaching and learning process, as well as to the students responsibility to get fully involved.

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